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Reconciliation hard for Iraq government

By HAMZA HENDAWI, Associated Press Writer 54 minutes ago

The prime minister has talked about the need for Iraq's rival ethnic and religious factions to rally around a plan to end violence since taking office nearly seven months ago.

But the country may never have looked further from national reconciliation than now, dampening hopes for a conference convening Saturday that is aimed at bringing the factions together to pave the way for peace.

"Reconciliation is the last rescue boat for the Iraqis," government spokesman Ali al-Dabagh told reporters this week.

The objective has taken on added importance as Washington has made national reconciliation a centerpiece of its strategy to stem sectarian violence in the country.

White House spokesman Tony Snow welcomed the reconciliation conference, saying Friday that it provides a "forum for those who stand opposed to violence and murder; allows them to stand up and make their voices heard."

"And the U.S., of course, stands with the prime minister and all leaders in Iraq who move toward those goals," he said.

But Sunni-Shiite violence has raged for close to a year and the sectarian slant of post-Saddam Hussein politics appears to be deepening in a climate defined by distrust.

That has left Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki virtually powerless to tackle the other problems afflicting the nation — the Sunni-led insurgency, power cuts, runaway inflation and unemployment rates and soaring crime.

Government authority is constantly challenged and its security forces are infiltrated by Shiite militias linked to political parties in al-Maliki's ruling coalition.

The government has not said who will be among the 200-plus delegates at the two-day conference in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses Iraqi government offices along with the U.S. and British embassies.

Al-Dabagh said everyone in and outside the political process has been invited, "except for those who committed crimes or sinned against the Iraqi people."

He also ruled out Sunni extremists, including al-Qaida in Iraq, as well as die-hard Saddam loyalists.

However, officials close to the preparations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said members of Saddam's outlawed Baath party who are not necessarily active in the insurgency may attend.

Some Iraqis linked to the insurgency, they said, wanted to come but feared arrest.

The Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars has said it won't attend, dismissing the conference as an exercise in public relations.

Reports of contacts between the government and Sunni-led insurgent groups first surfaced in 2004 and have continued to trickle in since. However, it was never made clear who exactly represented the insurgency in these talks or what progress, if any, has been made.

Similar meetings have been held on a smaller scale, but have been unable to overcome differences over such key issues as amnesty for insurgents.

Al-Dabagh acknowledged this conference may be more of a discussion forum than an event that would quickly change conditions on the ground.

He said the conference would include workshops to debate the main issues at the heart of the political divide between minority Sunni Arabs and Iraq's current ruling class of Shiites and Kurds, who together make up some 80 percent of the population.

He cited federalism, favored by Shiites and Kurds but opposed by Sunni Arabs for fear it could lead to Iraq's breakup, and the fate of senior members of Saddam's army and Baath party. The workshops, said al-Dabagh, would refer findings to another forum, which he did not specify, then to the Shiite-dominated parliament.

The conference also was overshadowed by attacks in the capital, including a mass kidnapping Thursday in which gunmen seized storekeepers, shoppers and bystanders and a suicide bombing earlier in the week that struck a crowd of mostly poor Shiites, killing as many as 71 people.

Such attacks are common in Iraq, and their frequency points to the plight of a Shiite-dominated government that took months to put itself together only to disappoint many with its performance.

The conference comes at a particularly bad time for al-Maliki, whose government is facing growing dissent by coalition partners, including Shiite allies like Muqtada al-Sadr, rival politicians seeking to sideline the anti-American cleric and Sunni Arab politicians.

The sectarian slant of post-Saddam politics has deepened in recent days, with a prominent Sunni Arab leader telling a gathering in Turkey this week that Baghdad was being turned into a Shiite city, a reference to suspected Shiite death squads that have targeted Sunni Arabs.

"We are in a predicament. We are being castrated, killed and destroyed," Adnan al-Dulaimi said.

Al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is blamed for much of the sectarian violence, called for Sunni-Shiite unity on Friday and disavowed Shiites and Sunnis who kill members of the other sect.

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